Amma,

Amma, I can’t write any more. I want to, I really want to, but nothing is coming to me in the way that it used to, in that sudden crash around my ears and shoulders, and in my teeth. Sometimes I think it will come back to me; that I should just be patient, waiting, sitting, sighing, and then the story will present itself, neatly wrapped in blue gift paper with golden stars, and with that same sudden crash of appearance. But I’ve waited and waited, and it hasn’t. I haven’t written.

Amma, you had hair that felt like rope. It never fell on your shoulders and across your back in the clean, light way that hair falls after a visit to the parlour, but it hit your shoulders in the angry way that eggs crack open into a whipping bowl with onions and chilly powder. Sometimes it was the brown of dark chocolate in the sun, and at home it was the dull black of hair left to itself and our white lights.

Will you sit straight, you’d say to me.

I am.

Stop squirming, you’d say.

I could feel the comb getting caught in the knotted hair at my neck. Amma, you had hair that wouldn’t slip through my fingers.

I’m not moving. I was like a worm in the rain that the boys in school would pick up with sticks.

You can never sit still, you’d say.

Then you’d give up on the knot. You would plait my hair and tuck the knot in somewhere it couldn’t be seen.

I can. Appa’s tickling my feet.

Your hands would move quickly. You would move your left hand first and then right, and then left, and right again, again, and once more, and again. I could see the oil on your hands when you had finished.

Amma, I found your will when you weren’t at home. I was searching for a key in the drawer where you kept your mother’s silver earrings hidden between other keys, but that day I found some documents that looked official in the way that everything printed on white sheets can look important. It must have been a holiday. Appa was with you in the hospital.

I took out your will and read it. I put it back in your drawer before you came home. You left me your mother’s jewellery, and your money went to Appa to keep for my education.

You wrote me letters for after you were gone. I found them by accident. I always found your secrets by accident, really. You told me about your parents. In one, you wrote that you had found my diary that I kept hidden in the red cloth bag with Christmas decorations, and couldn’t help reading the few lines I had written about you. I didn’t have to relook at my diary to remember those lines. I had been worried that you were going to die. You told me that when you were my age, you had stood posting letters at one of the red post boxes near your house, crying, because your father had been paralysed and wouldn’t walk again. You didn’t have to say anything after this. We must have been the same girls, except you learnt to play the violin, and I joined you for music class.

Sometimes I wonder what you were like when you were twenty.

Amma, I want to be alone. I think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be without always having to explain myself. I don’t care about some people. I care about others quietly, openly. People are always taking up space, demanding space, drawing and redrawing my lines, and coming too close or going too far. Invariably they’re men.

I want to sit in a coffee shop where everyone has learnt to expect me on this day and this time, with this coffee, and that seat by the window. The window must be large, wooden, and I must be able to look out and sigh into it, and outside the window I will watch the sigh go, carried by the wind, and wonder who’ll catch it like they catch a yawn. Sometimes it’s a happy sigh.

I want to sit in this coffee shop and read. I want to laugh with the words, and run my hand through my hair and think I look beautiful and mysterious, because it’s okay to think that sometimes. Amma, I want to read and be happy, and know that it will change me in a way that no person has ever been able to change me. Sometimes, I want to smile into the sun outside the large wooden window with a book turned to page 132, and decide I will write today. Then I’ll turn on my laptop and open a Word document, change the font to Times New Roman size 11, and touch the keyboard lightly, each key becoming the other key because in my head I see words and a little girl crying.

Amma, when you wrote me stories in the banana fibre notebook we bought at Pondicherry in the little shop that sold handmade paper, did you think of making your characters boys, and then decide that there are enough stories about them anyway? I want to tell stories of girls and it will be more real and more honest, and make me happier, because she is the girl I used to be, the girl I am, the girl and woman I want to be, the woman my aunt makes me be, and my father makes me be and wants me to be, and my memory of you makes me be. I want to write, sitting in the middle of all my space, my room, and the new city that I’m beginning to walk through, crawl through, run through, sit through, and a city that walks, and runs, and sits all around me.

Soon after the second time your cancer came and went, Amma, you had curly hair that was coloured brown, and I could see the grey near the roots. They weren’t the neat curls, like hair that had been tightly wound around a pencil and then left loose, but your hair curled around itself like telephone wires. In school, by the time I grew my hair out and turned fifteen, my friends would ask me if I curled my hair. I had tamer telephone wire curls that they would pull, stretch out, and let go, laughing when they coiled back into themselves. I would think of you.

That second time with the cancer, I hadn’t known what was happening, and I was embarrassed that you wore a cloth around your head, because nobody else’s mother did this. I didn’t know the cancer and chemotherapy as cancer and chemotherapy; I knew them as days in the month that I spent in the hospital waiting room with Appa after school, until you came out tired in the late evening and hugged me lightly. In the car, I would do most of the talking on the way home.

When I was home last summer, I was looking through your clothes to find something of yours that would fit right on my shoulders. I lifted out piles of clothes that perhaps we should have given away like other people do when someone has died, but we didn’t. Some of your friends stayed home on the morning of your cremation, and they tried to get me to stay home too. That morning I had my first ride in a vehicle with a siren. I wondered why they had turned on the siren, because there was no emergency, and there was nothing to be done quickly. When we came home, the house was still full of people, but the curtains and sheets, and pillow covers had all been changed. Your room now had pale pink curtains, and the hall had white ones. Your sheets were blue.

I don’t remember why we didn’t give your clothes away. Perhaps I told Appa that I’d wear your clothes one day, or maybe Appa couldn’t do it himself, or he didn’t know who to give them to. I remember you in each of these clothes every time I look through them; I remember which kurtas you wore with your green salwar, and which shirt you took on our trip to Uttaranchal. If we had given them away, it would have to have been to strangers.

But this summer, I found myself pulling out a cloth that had been folded in half. I can’t remember its colour. I opened it out, and saw your thick, rough hair from when it was wavy and only black. It looked like a wig. I wondered which time this was from, the first cancer, or the two times that it followed.

Amma, I have cut my hair in a way that has made my telephone wire curls disappear.

 

In memory

I have not written in a while. I have reached some place where words do not rush out like they used to; falling over themselves like all the times I did at school. They ran fast, those words, rushing forward like people at bus stops who want at that moment, nothing more than one of the three empty seats in the bus that has just arrived. Once there, they would subside into themselves, folding like brightly coloured origami paper along creases she had come to make for herself. Like this woman, those words would sit there—sometimes uncomfortably—momentarily forgotten to those but herself among the more unwieldy ones. But these words came, and now they do not.

When she asks me why I have not written, I don’t know what to say. I mumble something about time, about trying, but in all this while, I haven’t. It is becoming easier to tell myself that I have indeed tried, I have said this so many times that it seems true. This place has only words spoken but they do not do much, they are always too few or too many. The words I want come to me through writing that belongs to others—there has been so much of this lately, but it hasn’t been enough to bring me words of my own. I sit on the corner of my bed, re-reading old blog posts and stories, seeing no more than how much has changed. At seventeen, there was the girl who was nervously discovering words again. At eighteen and nineteen, she was using them because they made her happy.

Now, I remember that woman clearly, but cannot find her. I am sitting on the floor in the balcony this evening with a newly opened document, hoping that some words will come for her, and for me.

Midnight blue

I remember painting the table blue.

“It’s your table, you pick the colour,” Amma had said, but the metal table had been her father’s. Of course, I couldn’t decide, and it seemed like big decision for me to take at seven. I would always sit at the table—when I completed my Hindi homework remembering to put a purnaviraam instead of the full stops I was so used to, when I wrote a poem about a centipede that enjoyed walks, or when I painted a picture of my pottery class with no sense of depth—these are the big things I imagined doing there. Now I do not always sit here anymore, I slouch on my bed with its orange cover, or lie on the cold floor when I write. It is easy to write with a laptop, tapping at keys whose places I now know—Amma had once said she had gone for typing classes, and I could never understand why. But she could tell me which key was next to which, and I cannot.

The blue table was supposed to be brown, a dark, overused colour that at seven, I felt I would like even ten years later. Ten years is a long time, and it has come and gone, like the train that brought my aunt to Hyderabad on holiday, and then took her away. But brown paint was unavailable, and red would be too bright, so I picked blue. It is Prussian blue; I remember its name because of my table; when I got my first set of oil paints, it was the first colour I used. Amma called it “midnight blue”, and I did not understand this—I woke up late one night to look at the colour of the sky, and it was black.

We bought the blue paint from a small store that I remember for its strong smelling glue—I was warned not to touch anything, or my fingers would stick together. It must have been a Sunday because Appa was home too, and he helped me move the table to our balcony. It is a small balcony that now has overgrown trees from the neighbouring Apollo Hospital canteen reaching in. Back then, everybody could see what we were doing there—at thirteen, I remember a man whistling at me as I put out the clothes to dry. I had been uncomfortable, but I told nobody. We spread out old newspapers; I took them from the pile under Appa’s table—that is still where we keep them until there is no space. Amma joined us in turning the table over; its large rectangular surface was now on the floor, like bugs on their backs that I always stopped to turn over. Appa now uses the brush we used to paint the table to clear dust from his laptop, “It’s good for narrow spaces,” he says.

I liked the blue table when we finished.

We rearranged my room that day. The table went near the windows because I wanted to look outside when I worked—it was the image I had of a girl who thought a lot, and I wanted to be that girl. It had been months since I had slept there, first I had been too scared, and then summer came. Only Amma and Appa’s room had an AC, so I would take large pillows there, making a bed for myself on the floor. I’d look at their beds; the one on the left had Seemanthini Niranjana painted on it. Amma did not explain when I asked her why, just that her sister’s had her name on it, and I would look at this name and fall asleep. After the night I returned to my bed room with its blue table, I found a note under my pillow—“Welcome back! Love, RF and TF,” it said. Appa had a perfect explanation, RF was Room Fairy and TF was Tooth Fairy. It must have been his doing, but after that day I always slept there.

The blue table has three drawers on the right, and underneath there is a rod for me to keep my feet. I have always needed this rod, school tables without them made me uncomfortable. Amma used two of the three drawers to keep her files. I think they are still there; I have not checked, but at nine, this is where I found her leather bound diary. “Amma, is this yours?” I asked her incredulously, as though the thought of her being young could only be in theory. She was sitting in the hall, a pillow in the small of her aching back, reading Isabel Allende’s Paula. Even then I knew that I would read the same book later, that it was important for me to do so. They say I am a lot like her now but I cannot tell, so I only smile. Amma took the book from me slowly. She opened it and waved me away, I never saw it again and never asked either.

At sixteen, my blue table was always cluttered. I did not write there any more—the table had been moved under the small yellow light—I wanted only yellow lights in my room, but this was not allowed. My bed is now by the same windows that I wanted to look out of and think; the image in my head has now turned into the girl who reads by her window on a rainy day with cup of hot coffee in slowly darkening room. Pens that had no ink were lost among those that did. Appa would often find his pens there, and we’d argue—“You have so many on your table,” I’d snap. Textbooks I no longer have use for sit between books I have already read or hope to read; they sit precariously but do not fall. Sheets of paper with stories begun and left with nowhere to go lie between these books, letters I had begun to write to somebody were crumpled and hidden, just in case I wanted to send them some day.

At nineteen, the table is still blue—now it is the only table I sit at if I want to write.

Mangalore

I don’t like the smell of cars. It is not bright, like the smell of newly washed white sheets with pale blue stripes. It is a smell that walks in like a person you are not fond of, who has been listening to your conversation for a while now. It is not a smell you can get used to and it isn’t a smell you can place—you think it is leather, but it can also be the plastic. Outside the window there are hills, electric wires running between coconut trees and orange and yellow houses.

He is trying to keep up with a car that he cannot see, hoping it is somewhere in front, because otherwise we’re lost. He’s not good with directions, and we’re still 117 kilometers away. Next to me, A is using her new phone to take a picture of the ghats. The window is closed, so the photograph she takes also reflects the book she is reading—Murakami, I think. Outside, a woman in red is walking on the trees. I see her occasionally, but she does not look at me. I like the picture A takes, it is eerie, and does not look photo-shopped. Nouns have become verbs, they now do more than say. She has always taken nice photographs.

The two of us were never close. When we were children, A would comb and pretend to cut my hair. She was at that in between age, and I made sure she was caught there—she was too old to play the games that she did, and I was her excuse. I did not mind. We bathed together once, and my towel fell off—that is all I remember. Now we spend our time going for talks, we sit silently through them and have coffee after. She insists on paying for auto rides, but she doesn’t always win. A has her own secrets and I have mine, and we have never thought it necessary to share them. It is more interesting to talk about movies, and incidents and lectures that we have attended—it helps that we like similar things. At the wedding a few days later we stuck together, talking of uncomfortable saris and fake smiles, and how the happiness we had then came from all the fish we ate.

It is hot, and the smell of the car returns more persistently. My stomach feels strange—like clothes in a washing machine that are clean, but will go on turning till the machine stops. Next time, I will not have an oily dosa for breakfast. There is Japanese music playing in the background and Appa is singing along, making up words that have no meaning. We are laughing. I wonder if he would have done this some years ago—no, and I am sure of this—but what has changed? The woman in red turns to look at us from between the trees.

In the front seat, they hardly speak. Perhaps they no longer have much to say to each other, they have grown too different too quickly. Appa listens to him speak, nodding occasionally. Just check the cricket score—that is all they talk about when they must. He will say that Kohli is their only chance, that India will not win this match, that they must score the next 50 runs quickly, or all is lost. Appa nods slightly, before beginning to sing along with the Japanese song playing. We laugh again. When we go for gudbud the next day, Appa insists that A must try it. The three of us are all A’s, Ajja called us his three Aces. She likes the tall glass, the jelly, and the three scoops of ice cream—one each of vanilla, butterscotch, and strawberry.

I look out of the window again. The washing machine that is the ghats have ended. I pick up Zadie Smith again, and the woman in red smiles.

Almost

Ekphrasis

There is half a cello on the almost chessboard floor. Its thin strings are a darker grey than the grey on the floor that is almost white. The instrument on the top of the table can almost be seen; the painting on the right that you can almost make out through its darkness has a man with two women. You cannot like the man. There is some hope in the sky in the painting on the left, above the blackness of trees you cannot discern. The blue cloth that lies out of place on the table has thick folds—it is heavy, like velvet that is at once too soft, and too artificial.

The painting on the instrument that she is playing is a continuous rolling landscape that you move with slowly. Beyond it there will be some more of the same—hills and rocks and trees against a blurred blue sky—here, the only wonder left is at the ordinary. The bows in her hair match the yellow of her dress, an intentional choice that her face does not betray. She watches her thin hands intently, only you cannot see their movement. The man sitting at the orange chair who does not face you is the man in the painting above him—he has to be. He does not watch his hands moving across the instrument he holds; there is some thought of after, when the movement and sound is momentarily ceased. She stands with one hand raised and a paper in the other, singing. The earrings and necklace she wears are the same as her friend in yellow. Like the women in the painting above her who are wearing similar clothes.

There is almost too much darkness, the room needs light. They do not look at each other now, their looks will be saved for the conversation after—the song has almost ended.

A window on the third floor

There is nothing that I can say about it. There are no people, no women talking, no horses, no faces, and no trees—there is nothing in this painting that I can see in the others lying next to it. I would like to tell you about the day it was made because this is the only story of it that I know, but perhaps I shouldn’t; to me the painting is only colours. So I will not tell you about how she turned a large calendar from Goethe Institute over, and stuck it on the wall. I will not tell you that she was fourteen years old, or of how she pushed a table to that wall and sat on the four large pillows she put on it. She can tell you that it was uncomfortable, but she is not here, so she won’t. She can also tell you that there was nothing on her mind when she painted that day, but she will not be able to tell you that either.

It is the corner of the right side that I like the most. The colours there are dark, moving from one to the next in no exact shape that has a name. There is, for instance, a red bean. It is a colour that doesn’t yet have a name, an odd mixture of crimson lake and Prussian blue. I can tell you that she first used crimson lake because of the way the Prussian blue looks on it—like circular waves, like ripples when you drop a stone in water when you are at a lake and feeling sad. Below the nameless colour is a green—not viridian hue—but at the moment, I cannot remember the name. It is muddy and dark, like the paste you made of Neem leaves when you were younger, to use in the cooking games she wanted you to play. The two of you no longer talk now. Around this is Prussian blue that has been scratched at in straight lines that criss-cross each other, looking like the mosquito mesh on your window. In some places the Prussian becomes cobalt blue because it was rubbed at with cloth—I see the advantage of using oil paints on glossy paper, it is so easy to make sure that nothing remains.

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There is more happening on the left; I like it less because it is so crowded. They are colours that move quickly and they are less similar—here it is more about the lines, than the blocks of colour. The paint is thinner and there are no layers, the colours scratched out by the backs of paintbrushes and toothpicks seem more hasty—like she ran out of songs to sing, and couldn’t wait to finish painting. It is not a bad thing. The burnt sienna close to the corner was mixed with too much linseed oil, I can see where it dripped down, and she did not notice. It has made a track of its own; it looks like a pathway cleared in the snow, though I have never seen snow. But the track is surrounded by almost haphazardly drawn lines that do not allow for dark colour, like new snow that falls and covers tracks. Somewhere above it the green looks like fire. She was always scared of fire; at six she hated matchsticks and she still cannot light one.

It is odd to touch. You think you can feel the lines but they are actually too close together; there is only more roughness than anything else. Involuntarily you look at your finger and expect paint, but there is nothing there.

She and I

I am sitting in my aunt’s house. I have been sitting on the same sofa, the door to the balcony is open behind me, but I am sitting inside. She walks past me occasionally, then she says something from the kitchen about dinner, and for a second I don’t respond. By then she has come to the hall with a plate full of food, to the sofa I am sitting on, and she gives it to me. I hold the plate in my hand—two chapattis, some beans, a little bit of dal. I turn to look at the balcony because something moves behind me; the morning’s newspaper is flying.

The girl sat on the floor of her balcony. They had bothered her, and she was crying. Amma was making herself some tea in the kitchen. Amma knew that she was crying, but she let her cry. It was almost five in the evening; they would all soon go downstairs to play hide-and-seek, or cycle. She had learnt how to cycle, Appa had taught her. Amma could then sit down in the hall, place a pillow in the small of her aching back, and read. The girl cried louder and saw the wire of the iron box trailing away under a small table. She cried tragically, as though nothing could be done, and saw that the iron board that was folded on the floor had green legs with paint chipping off. They rang the bell and asked her to come and play. She didn’t reply, she was crying.

Amma sent them in. Appa had read her Monkey’s Drum again, and she had been scared. She remembered two faces on the page. On the right was the wide-eyed young girl looking at a knife held up by the monkey, her mouth open. The knife was obviously blunt, like some of the knives in their kitchen that have needed sharpening for a while now. She saw that the monkey’s hand was uncannily like her own; in her head she saw it shaking in his obvious distress, his eyes mostly black, looking resentful and sneaky. There were exactly twenty words on the page that she didn’t consider necessary to read. She knew what was going to happen. She was the books she read; she associated people around her with those in the stories she heard every day. They had made her cry, and for a while, they were the monkey.

They walked through her sunny room into the balcony; they crouched on the floor next to her. They asked her what was wrong—she was surprised they did not know. She had learnt the national anthem in school that day and she had been singing it for Amma; they had stood outside her house and imitated her. One girl had probably nudged the other, they were loud and they sang badly. She wasn’t sure why that was so bad, or why she was crying. But she continued to cry because she had started, and at six she wanted to cry for silly things occasionally. Then Amma walked in and said they should go play. So she washed her face with cold water, and they went.

That weekend, she and Amma read nonsense poetry together. Appa was not at home, and they were reading limericks that she understood occasionally—at some point she realised that perhaps they were not meant to be understood. They read about long noses and burning cats, about the man on a hill and the man with a beard that was home to owls, of the abnormally small man who was devoured by a puppy. She saw the pictures and then drew her own, and with each picture she wrote about herself.

There was a young girl of Southside,

Who liked to run away and hide,

Her friends searched high,

Her friends searched low,

But kept missing that young girl of Southside.

They had laughed that day; she with her plait coming loose, Amma, in her weekend clothes. Amma would drift off to do her own work occasionally; there would be phone calls from the office that the girl would sometimes go to, and sit among the piles of handloom fabric. Emails would be sent, there would be writing. The girl now sat in the hall on the divan, next to her was A Book of Nonsense with Lear, and Carroll, and others. In her hand were a notebook and pencil. She always used sharp pencils. She liked how her writing looked when she did—clean, neat, precise—she was not one to keep scratching out words any way.

Appa had got her a book. It was a small notebook with ruled pages that could be removed or added, its cover was brown with little people drawn in a spiral. Their triangular two-part bodies were filled in with black, their hands and legs thin lines that reminded her of spiders she had once been scared of, but now played with. He kept telling her she should write poems, and sometimes, she did. One day she wrote, and he helped her finish. The last line was her favourite, she repeated it over and over, Appa had come up with parts of it, and they had laughed together. She could hear him reading the poem aloud; she heard the happy exclamation at the end of the last sentence.

I met a mosquito and I said hello

But it bit me, and I said owe-e-e

I scratched the bump and I poked the bump

And I asked him why he bit me?

He replied and said, sorry, I was just trying to be friendly.

Friendly? Oh then why did you bite me?

He laughed and said, that’s the way friendly mosquitoes try to be friendly.

It was strange, she very often wrote of small creatures she otherwise disliked or was scared of, mosquitos, turtles. In school the boys in her class would run behind the girls with sticks after it had rained. At the end of these sticks would be long worms, she felt bad for them, but she still ran. On other days there would be centipedes that they would crouch down and touch, just to watch them curl up and lie still before they uncurled and walked again. Their movement reminded her of cats when they were concentrating, when their tails flicked from side to side. And in her poems she liked them, the creatures were not so unusual—they felt things like she did, they rationalised things, they had answers to her questions. She wrote of asking a centipede how it never got tired walking, and for her the centipede replied, “No you silly, you see, I have so many legs.” And there was her answer. It was a perfect world, there were questions, there were doubts, she never asked them, but she answered them anyway.

At some point when she was twelve, all her stories were about Amma. Then she wrote frantically to remember her, her passing was real, and writing about her made it less so. Or perhaps more so, she could not tell. As she wrote, she remembered incidents, small incidents—learning badminton, talking about books, music classes where she’d sometimes fall asleep; oddly enough she never remembered the poetry. She had forgotten about writing poetry as she grew older, she wrote stories because they made her happy.

When she was seventeen, she sat one day in the library in school and found a volume of Women’s Writing in India. She was in her favourite chair between two bookshelves; the window overlooking the auditorium was behind her. It was the end of her school year. When the bell rang, she and two of her friends would jump out of the library window for three glasses of hot tea from the staffroom when the teachers weren’t looking. The anna there was nice enough to give it to them, he found them funny. In the book she looked for her grandmother secretly, she didn’t know much about her, but she knew her stories. She found one, on turning to the page she discovered it was translated by Amma. She read it over and over again, she smiled a lot; she wrote her next assignment on it, her story was a continuation of the one her grandmother had written. Something shifted and she began to write about other things, she read more poetry but never wrote it.

I am no longer in my aunt’s house; I have come home now, to Hyderabad. I am sitting in my room; it is again dinner time, and Appa is calling me. I have been writing for a while now and it’s the same piece, I have been reading the same paragraphs over and over, adding lines, removing words. I think—I must turn on the fan, it is getting too hot now; is there more pomegranate in the bowl, I’m hungry; does what I’m trying to say make sense? I remember the notebook Appa had got me; I remember that I kept it in my bookshelf behind all the books I have read, and those I am yet to read. It’s dusty, I open it.

To be a real poet you need imagination.

You must always write a poem down,

So keep a pen and paper ready,

And imagine.

I wrote then because there were more worlds other than my own. Now, more worlds mean more stories, and more stories mean more words.